In 1966 the Enoch Pratt Free Library in Baltimore, MD, published the first issue of Chicory, a magazine of poetry and art by Baltimore residents edited by local poet Sam Cornish. In the ensuing two decades, Chicory became the hub of a network of Black cultural production and activism in Baltimore, publishing pieces by residents with little editing, including snippets of overheard conversations and poems shared orally with editors. The magazine functioned as a public forum where community members, from children to elders, could use poetry to comment on politics, debate ideas, and imagine new worlds. Before it ceased publication in 1983, Chicory helped to develop a specifically African-American literary aesthetic, and in 1969, the Baltimore Afro-American called it, “The most authentic microphone of black people talking ever devised.”
The story of Chicory— rediscovered by Mary Rizzo after falling into relative obscurity and fully digitized in collaboration with Pratt Library—overturns the usual narrative of Baltimore’s Black history, which sees the riot in 1968 as the starting point of an inexorable decline leading to increased poverty, drug use, and violence, culminating in the 2015 uprising. Looking at Baltimore through the lens of Chicory reveals Black working-class neighborhoods as vibrant sites of cultural, social, and political activity. In its pages, debates raged over Black Nationalism and revolutionary Marxism and women and men questioned gender roles in the family, at work, and in society. Meanwhile, activists built new institutions from Black Power schools to bookstores to empower local communities.
In 2018, Rizzo used a Whiting Public Engagement Seed Grant to create the Chicory Revitalization Project, hosting civic dialogues where young people interpreted and responded to poems from Chicory as historical sources. In collaboration with the Enoch Pratt Free Library, the nonprofits Writers in Baltimore Schools and Dewmore Baltimore, and Bard Early College High School, Rizzo will use the Fellowship to co-create a traveling exhibition about Black cultural activism in Baltimore from the 1960s-1980s as told through the story of Chicory. Middle and high school students in Baltimore will lead the curatorial process, defining themes and identifying which historical issues are most relevant to their lives today, and will work with Rizzo and undergraduates at Rutgers-Newark to write interpretive text and create accompanying audiovisual materials.
The exhibition will launch at the Central branch of the Pratt library, Baltimore’s free public library system, before touring the state. By involving young minds in the activation of a historical record of Black Baltimore’s resilience and creativity, the Chicory exhibition will connect past and present to resonate with Maryland audiences across generations.